In my last blog I wrote about helping a wandering brother or sister back to the bedrock of Truth, who is of course, Yeshua the Son of God. I hope you will read that one. This one follows up on it in a way.
When was the last time you read the short letter to Philemon? It’s a masterful and gentle—and yet a very strong teaching from Paul to a church leader named Philemon. Back in Paul’s day, it was not uncommon to have male and female slaves – yes, people you bought and sold and who lived and worked in your house. And yes, even in the household of God this was going on. This letter revolves around a runaway slave of one of the leaders in Colossae – yes, same as the group to whom “Colossians” was written.
Remember that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and many of the Israelites, and no doubt the Israelite and Jewish kings – including David and all the rest – also had slaves. Slavery is not my topic today. My topic is how Paul handled a runaway slave and the slave’s “owner” and how it ties in, in a way, to my last blog about helping someone wandering from the truth – but doing it with grace, gentle firmness and love.
And this book of Philemon was a clear signal to early Christians that we were to start to view one another as all children of God, whether we were slave or free -- and where possible, to start to change the social assumptions that everyone had back then.
Please open up in your own New Testament to the “book” of Philemon – very short – and follow along with me. It’s the letter just before the book of Hebrews.
Paul opens by calling Philemon a “fellow laborer” – a term that often could mean a fellow minister or helper in the work Paul was doing. So we can’t be sure Philemon was an ordained minister, though tradition says he was. No doubt he was a man of some standing in the congregation. Apphia was probably Philemon’s wife.
Paul mentions “and to the assembly (church) in your house” (verse 2). Perhaps this alludes to “a house church” where other believers came to worship and meet in Philemon’s house.
Paul begins by commending Philemon for being such a reliable and dependable leader and fellow-believer in Colossae. He speaks of Philemon’s love and faith in verses 4-7 and calls him a “brother”.
Now the short summarized story for the rest of his letter is this:
** Onesimus, though a slave of Philemon, had run away
** Prior to running away, he may not have been a very good servant or slave
** Runaways were often treated harshly when found
** Somehow and some way after he ran away – by God’s calling no doubt – Onesimus and Paul had met up in Rome.
** God uses Paul to bring Onesimus to conversion and into the body of Christ.
** Paul determines to send Onesimus back to Philemon in Colossae, but writes a letter so that Philemon just might start to view Onesimus in a different light. Philemon means “affectionate”. Onesimus means “profitable” or “useful”. Notice how the theme of being useful and profitable to Paul and one another is woven through this letter. It’s a masterpiece. Onesimus is mentioned in Colossians 4:9 as a “faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you.”
Click on “Continue reading” to finish learning about Paul’s masterful use of his authority as an apostle – and yet his desire to help, as a brother. It’s masterful. We have much to learn from this short letter. Yes, me too!
Philemon v 8-9 – my summary: Paul says, “though I could be bold - - as an apostle – to command what I’m about to ask, I’m not going to go down that road. I’d rather beseech, or just hash out something with you first in a spirit of love”. He mentions he’s getting to be an old prisoner of Jesus Christ – probably around 60 years old – and he mentions his chains (v. 10).
“Philemon, I’m an old man in chains, jailed in Rome for the sake of Christ, and surely you’ll hear me out” – is my read of this section.
- v. 10-11 — Imagine Philemon’s surprise to read Paul calling Onesimus, his runaway slave, “my son”? This surely was immediately beginning to soften his heart and raise lots of questions. Not only that, Paul asserts that God had used him – Paul – to convert Onesimus (“Whom I have begotten in my bonds”).
The name “Onesimus” means “profitable” or “useful”. Paul plays on the word to admit that Onesimus was perhaps unprofitable at one time, prior to Christ coming into his life – “but is now profitable to you and to me” (v 11).
- v. 12 – it seems it was Onesimus’ own idea to return to Philemon and the group in Colossae to hand-carry Paul’s note. Paul had no legal or judicial power to force him to return. It’s just Paul being a good brother both to Onesimus the former slave and to Philemon, the owner. Paul ends v 12 with “please receive him as if you are receiving my own heart”. How tender and how loving is that!
Now all of verses 12-14 are so tender hearted and I will say it the way we might say it today in 2019: “Philemon, I love Onesimus. He could be so helpful to me here, and has been. Frankly every day I spent time with him was as if you yourself were here, Philemon. I would have loved to have kept him, but without your consent, I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that.”
- v. 15-16—“Philemon, maybe this was the very reason all this happened: so that though you lost him for a short time as a slave, that you might gain him back – this time no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother, both to me and you but especially in the Lord.”
- v. 17-20 – Paul pours it on. Read this yourself. Paul offers to pay any wrongs done by Onesimus. Think of it: of course Philemon won’t do that. But it gets him thinking. Doesn’t God cancel all our debts, all MY debts – and so I should be doing the same for those who owe me, right? And perhaps he thought of the Lord’s Prayer – “forgive us our debts AS WE FORGIVE our debtors…”
- V. 21-22 – I don’t believe Paul ever made it out of prison in Rome, but in fact was beheaded, according to tradition.
But what a lovely way to say – “Come on Philemon, we’ve all been forgiven so much, and I know you’ve learned that, and I know you will welcome back Onesimus, give him a big hug, and of course give him his freedom. You have such a great reputation as a gentle man of noble character. I know you’ll welcome your new brother back. And I’m sure Onesimus, who means “profitable” – will be profitable to you. And when you see him, remember Onesimus really truly was so helpful to me, so when you see him, see me.”
Onesimus was now a spirit-filled changed human being. Surely the grace of God on his life would be evident to all and now he could be of even more service to Philemon and the brethren at Colossae as a spirit-led child of God.
Paul never “pulled rank” – though he indicated he could have, but chose not to. No dictatorial commands. We see just the grace and love of our Lord and Savior Yeshua the Messiah coming through – and that’s how he ends this wonderful letter in diplomacy and love.
Tradition also says Philemon was the bishop of that congregation and in the end suffered martyrdom as an unwavering believer in Jesus Christ.